Graeme Bloch: 1956–2021

09 April 2021 | Story Nadia Krige. Photo University of Cape Town. Read time 5 min.
Graeme Bloch
Graeme Bloch

Struggle stalwart, higher education activist and beloved University of Cape Town (UCT) alumnus and former Council member Graeme Bloch has died at the age of 65. UCT joins his family, friends and colleagues in mourning his untimely passing.

Bloch’s family shared the news of his death on Friday, 9 April. He was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy seven years ago.

Strong ties with UCT

For many years, the Bloch family has had a close association with UCT.

Bloch’s father, Cecil, was a professor in plastic surgery in the Faculty of Health Sciences. During his career at UCT – and after his retirement – Cecil capped all nine of his children at graduation ceremonies. Bloch’s stepmother was a part-time lecturer in the physiotherapy department in the 1990s.

Bloch completed his BA at UCT in 1976 and received class medals in ethics and comparative African government. He completed a master’s in economic history in 1980 and worked as a teaching assistant in the Economics department between 1982 and 1984.

Bloch served as a UCT Council member between 2008 and 2016.

Anti-apartheid activism

During his time as a student at UCT, Bloch became involved in the anti-apartheid movement. In August 1976, at the age of 20, he led a march in solidarity with students who had taken part in the June uprisings. He was arrested and detained for two weeks and subjected to brutal treatment by the police.

DispatchLive reports that upon his release he decided to take up karate as a means to defend himself, eventually earning a black belt.

In addition to his detainment, Bloch was also banned by the apartheid government, with his movements restricted to Cape Town between 1976 and 1981.

Dedication to higher education

He was passionate about the democratic cause and believed that education was the key to building a better post-apartheid South Africa. He served as an executive member of both the United Democratic Front and the National Education Crisis Committee.

In his application for UCT Council membership, Bloch wrote:

“Higher education is crucial to the long-term resolution of South Africa’s many social, political and developmental challenges, as well as to economic growth.”

Over the course of his career, Bloch filled an array of illustrious positions in the realm of education. Between 1985 and 1992 he was a lecturer in the departments of Economics, History and Education at the University of the Western Cape. Between 1993 and 1998 he was a project manager for the Joint Education Trust and the chief director of social development in the Department of Welfare.

He was also a visiting professor at the University of the Witwatersrand and served as the director of the South African Festival of Books, director of social development for the City of Johannesburg and education specialist for the Development Bank of Southern Africa.

During his eight years as a UCT Council member, Bloch strove to ensure that the university remained focused on its core academic role through appropriate governance and strategic decisions.

Tributes and obituaries

Since his death, tributes have been pouring in for Bloch.

His brother Lance shared the following moving post on Facebook:

“A fearless fighter for justice and equality.

Banned, detained, beaten by the apartheid government, but he fought on, often at great cost to himself.

Stricken by a terrible neurodegenerative disease which left him with a brilliant mind in a wasting body. But he accepted it and fought on.

One of the foremost educationalists in the country.

A humble, brave, humorous man.

A South African hero.

Go thee well into that good night, my brother …”

Jacques Rousseau, who served alongside Bloch on the UCT Council, reflected: “Many details of his public life are well known, and the tributes to his life have been plentiful and fully deserved. However, those of us who worked with him – and there are very many of us, given the range of his engagement with various causes – know first-hand how they cannot really do him justice.

“He was kind and helpful to me and other new [Council members], to be sure, but more importantly, he was unwaveringly fair, fierce, compassionate, critical and forthright, depending on what the situation required, but always guided by a deep and clearly sincere commitment to the future of UCT and higher education in general. Debates in Council were often robust, and on topics that could easily lend themselves to partisanship or defending self-interest, but I was thankful then, and remain thankful, for the example he set of principled engagement with our agenda, with no goal other than advancing UCT’s interests.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa also tweeted his condolences: “We are richer as a nation for Graeme’s intellectual and organisational leadership in the education sector, ushering us towards adopting a range of policies that opened the doors to millions of historically excluded citizens. Wishing his loved ones strength at this difficult time.”

In a statement released by the ANC, Bloch’s death is described as the “end of a revolutionary life that was dedicated to the freedom of all the people of South Africa … He will be remembered for his commitment to transformation, especially in the education sector.”

Bloch is survived by his wife, Cheryl Carolus (former ANC deputy secretary-general), and his eight siblings.

He will be missed sorely by the UCT community.

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